18 days, 125 years #buildingpassions

The last time I ran a countdown on this website was for the 100th anniversary of John Wolfe Barry’s death in January 2018.

This one is for the 125th anniversary of the first opening of Tower Bridge to the London public on 30 June, only eighteen days away.

I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.

The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.

In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.

Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.

The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.

Have a look at a revamped website

My former employer the Institution of Structural Engineers has revamped its website into something much more user friendly and welcoming.

Have a look!

It now explains structural engineering in simpler language to a global audience of experts and non-experts.

My key audience when I was there was young people. In fact I still feature on the revamped website in a blog post about an exciting programme getting teenagers into structural engineering and architecture.

There are plenty of students out there who don’t fully understand their university and career options. In many cases this may be fine, but for some it could also mean the difference between a happy life and one where you are struggling to find your niche.

My major piece of careers advice to anyone considering their employment choices is to use any reasonable and ethical means available to find out the truth about a profession – this may include becoming a member of a body or tracking down and speaking directly to graduates and apprentices within a sector. Fortune favours the brave and employers will reward initiative with an opportunity to prove yourself.

Finally, there are always second chances and I am currently grasping one for myself by writing my first book much later than I had hoped to. This won’t be my sole occupation but an important part of who I am. It took me a long time to get here but it has been worth it.

NB: the image of the Forth Rail Bridge in this post reflects one of the banner images on the IStructE’s new website and is the iconic 19th Century structure built from the same Arrol steel used on Tower Bridge.

35 days to go

On 30 June 2019 London and possibly the world will celebrate a day that commemorates 125 years since the opening of a well-known bridge.

No, not the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, opened in 1883, nor the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland opened in 1890, though both deserve special mention for their uniqueness as huge structures, still in use, which employed steel in a ground-breaking way.

This bridge is of course Tower Bridge.

Not everyone knows that the two famous towers which encapsulate the bridge are also made from steel. It is the same Scottish steel used to build the Forth Bridge first, and then almost immediately shipped down to London for the next big project.

In the case of Tower Bridge, the steel framework was clad in stone, which while acting to protect it from corrosion, was also needed to meet the architectural requirement that the bridge blend with the medieval Tower of London next to it. There was much controversy at the time about this.

The enormous bascule leaves, which still open and shut for river traffic, were a wonder to behold for the royals and public who attended the opening ceremony and were only surpassed in length a few decades later in the United States. I write about them in my forthcoming book on Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel (the civil engineers for the bridge), which will also cover their famous fathers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry.

Footnote: Dan Cruikshank, the TV broadcaster specialising in architectural history, has presented programmes on Tower Bridge which are sadly no longer available via broadcast networks. But for an intro to the history of London’s bridges see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n15w-s1qIM. Tower Bridge itself start from 47:30 minutes in.

The value of Parliament

The British Houses of Parliament have been in the news lately because of the laborious process for leaving the EU.

This process was clearly set up to discourage any state from doing a Brexit, Grexit or Frexit. Perhaps call it Nexit to be clear? The British people just want a clear decision to avoid current uncertainty.

As I watched the debates in the House of Commons last week I couldn’t help but admire the chamber in which the Members of Parliament sit, assuming they can find a spare place. It was deliberately designed by Charles Barry senior to be cosy, at the express wishes of the 19th Century incumbents who feared it would look vast and empty during an average poorly attended session!

Once completed by Edward Middleton Barry, the New Palace of Westminster would see numerous debates and committee sessions, including an inquiry into building a bridge across the adjacent Thames further downriver next to the Tower of London. One of the expert witnesses was Sir Charles’ other son John Wolfe Barry by then a respected civil engineer, who reassured MPs that despite vociferous opposition from some local commercial interests, the proposed bascule bridge would be a huge benefit to road traffic and a minor hindrance to river traffic. Tower Bridge still operates on this premise over a century later.

The benefit of hindsight ….

Iconic 19th Century structures: the Eiffel Tower

As I write this post I am in a Paris Hotel enjoying a few days in the French capital.

Of all the iconic 19th Century structures in the world, including Big Ben and Tower Bridge credited to the Barrys, for me the Eiffel Tower stands out the most. It is the symbol of Paris, arguably France, somewhat ironic given the temporary nature of the original iron tower built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris by Gustave Eiffel, as well as the hostile reception from many quarters.

Eiffel’s company had won a competition to build a 300m high metal structure on the site. This was achieved rapidly and systematically using standardised components creating a mathematically stable tower. The essential designs were made by engineers but an architect was needed to beautify the structure and add floors for visitors.

Despite a unique achievement the reaction of many was dismay at the perceived ugliness of the tower and a campaign to tear it down began. Fortunately this never succeeded and we still can admire the structure in its original completeness. In deed 7 million visitors come each year making it the most popular paying attraction in the world.

When John Wolfe Barry was completing Tower Bridge during the same period but over a longer time span, he also attracted criticism from his profession, this time for concealing the metal matrix under cladding.

Which shows that you can’t please everyone and might as well do what you think is right.

Purveyor of country house upgrades to the aristocracy

Sir Charles Barry established a reputation amongst the British aristocracy for upgrading their country houses in the 19th Century.

His route in was through his design of the Travellers Club in London (see my recent photo), a pivotal building in the history of British architecture. He successfully married his own design preferences with the combined tastes of the elite Club members including the Duke of Wellington no less. This produced a highly admired Italianate structure adapted from its Florentine and Roman influences to suit British culture and climate.

Dukes and Earls came flocking in his direction with commissions and this was further boosted by Barry’s successful bid to rebuild the Houses of Parliament after they were destroyed by fire in 1834. This became his major lifetime work, but he still managed to keep other clients satisfied with his redesign advice. Highclere Castle, Cliveden House and Dunrobin Castle all still stand today as examples of his influence.

This all explains why he was given the single honour of being buried in the aisle of Westminster Abbey at a funeral in 1860 attended by the good and the great.

His sons would never achieve their father’s status. However, I think that John Wolfe Barry deserves the most credit for maintaining the family hallmark of structural excellence, though having moved slightly out of Sir Charles’s shadow into civil engineering. There he established himself by completing Tower Bridge, less an architectural feat and more a triumph of structural and mechanical engineering.

More on Tower Bridge 125 years

As blogged before, next summer will mark 125 years since Tower Bridge was opened.

I’ve added a couple of extra pages to this site which is about the man who built the bridge. The first is on how John Wolfe Barry persuaded Parliament to approve the plans for a bascule bridge across the Thames. The second covers the pivotal role of William Arrol in manufacturing and installing the steel framework for the towers that supported the huge bascules. I will add further pages as we get closer to the date.

You can also keep an eye on Tower Bridge’s own plans at its Facebook page and via its Twitter handle @towerbridge .

At least one new book about the history of the bridge will be published, but in the meantime you can read Honor Godfrey’s excellent softback of 1988 through library loans or Amazon.